Thursday, 31 May 2012

Home Thoughts, From Abroad



This made me smile today. I have always had a penchant for pseudo-deep 1970s schmaltz (I could rave on for hours about Peter Sarstedt: I am a Cathedral in My Mind; My Father is the Pope you Know; etc) and can't believe I hadn't heard about Clifford T. Ward before.

He was a British singer-songwriter, big in the sixties and seventies (and onetime teacher of Trudie Styler - a lot to answer for). One of his most successful albums was Home Thoughts, with Home Thoughts from Abroad its title track. You can listen to it here (and I would suggest you do).

The lyrics alone make the song seem saccharine, and don't bear much interpretation (see below), but the song itself is sweet and heartfelt, catchy without being cheesy - and, above all, very very earnest. It equates lovesickness with homesickness, in a way we can all recognise, and the mention of Browning, Keats and Shelley lends it a very English charm (though perhaps not gravitas):

I could be a millionaire if I had the money
I could own a mansion, no I don't think I'd like that
But I might write a song that makes you laugh, now that would be funny
And you could tell your friends in England you'd like that
But now I've chosen aeroplanes and boats to come between us
And a line or two on paper wouldn't go amiss
How is Worcestershire? Is it still the same between us?
Do you still use television to send you fast asleep?
Can you last another week? Does the cistern still leak?
Or have you found a man to mend it?
Oh, and by the way, how's your broken heart?
Is that mended too? I miss you
I miss you, I really do.

I've been reading Browning, Keats and William Wordsworth
And they all seem to be saying the same thing for me
Well I like the words they use, and I like the way they use them
You know, Home Thoughts From Abroad is such a beautiful poem
And I know how Robert Browning must have felt
'Cause I'm feeling the same way about you
Wondering what you're doing and if you need some help
Do I still occupy your mind? Am I being so unkind?
Do you find it very lonely, or have you found someone to laugh with?
Oh, and by the way, are you laughing now?
'Cause I'm not, I miss you
I miss you, I really do.

I fell for it the first time I heard it and I knew I really loved it when I heard the catch in Ward's throat at the thought of "aeroplanes and boats" coming "between us"... For some reason the mention of Worcestershire, and the general theme, make me think of Armistead Maupin's character from Tales of the City, Mona Ramsey - after the first few books doesn't she end up as a San Francsico √©migr√©, somewhere in deepest, darkest Englandshire, probably with a faulty cistern, and with many aeroplanes and boats between her and Barbary Lane?

And for good measure, here is Robert Browning's "Home Thoughts, from Abroad"; it's interesting that Ward wrote of feeling how Browning "must have felt", given that Browning is writing about England, and what it is to be there, and all of the spring sights he is missing, whereas Ward sings about all of the ways that the person he misses, who happens to be in England, might be getting on happily without him - home to him is the person rather than the place (echoes of good old Donne?), and while a place can be relied upon to remain constant, and to carry on much the same in one's absence, a person cannot... which makes me think that Ward's song is actually an expression of insecurity  as opposed to homesickness.... oh well, here's Browning's uncomplicated paeon to the English spring:

O, TO be in England
Now that April 's there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England—now!

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossom'd pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray's edge—
That 's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children's dower
—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

Ward was in France when he wrote his song (tramping round Fountainbleu, apparently), and Browning wrote his in Italy. Homesickness is a horrible thing, striking and gripping like an icy tentacle; it can be triggered by the smallest thing - a smell, a noise, a letter, a voice - and can turn everything in its wake into joyless, dusty chores and motions. There is something about the heat which seems to trigger it in sensitive Englishmen (and aren't we a little bit glad? - look at those beautiful, melancholic faces); all of this nostalgia, melancholia and homesickness makes me think of Rupert Brooke, dying slowly of an insect bite in the Mediterranean heat, missing honey and greenery and birdsong:

Just now the lilac is in bloom,
All before my little room;
And in my flower-beds, I think,
Smile the carnation and the pink;
And down the borders, well I know,
The poppy and the pansy blow...
Oh! there the chestnuts, summer through,
Beside the river make for you
A tunnel of green gloom, and sleep
Deeply above; and green and deep
The stream mysterious glides beneath,
Green as a dream and deep as death.
-- Oh, damn! I know it! and I know
How the May fields all golden show,
And when the day is young and sweet,
Gild gloriously the bare feet
That run to bathe...
Du lieber Gott!

Here am I, sweating, sick, and hot,
And there the shadowed waters fresh
Lean up to embrace the naked flesh.
Temperamentvoll German Jews
Drink beer around; -- and there the dews
Are soft beneath a morn of gold.
Here tulips bloom as they are told;
Unkempt about those hedges blows
An English unofficial rose;
And there the unregulated sun
Slopes down to rest when day is done,
And wakes a vague unpunctual star,
A slippered Hesper; and there are
Meads towards Haslingfield and Coton
Where das Betreten's not verboten.

eithe genoimen...would I were
In Grantchester, in Grantchester! --
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, or Earth, or such.
And clever modern men have seen
A Faun a-peeping through the green,
And felt the Classics were not dead,
To glimpse a Naiad's reedy head,
Or hear the Goat-foot piping low:...
But these are things I do not know.
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester...
Still in the dawnlit waters cool
His ghostly Lordship swims his pool,
And tries the strokes, essays the tricks,
Long learnt on Hellespont, or Styx.
Dan Chaucer hears his river still
Chatter beneath a phantom mill.
Tennyson notes, with studious eye,
How Cambridge waters hurry by...
And in that garden, black and white,
Creep whispers through the grass all night;
And spectral dance, before the dawn,
A hundred Vicars down the lawn;
Curates, long dust, will come and go
On lissom, clerical, printless toe;
And oft between the boughs is seen
The sly shade of a Rural Dean...
Till, at a shiver in the skies,
Vanishing with Satanic cries,
The prim ecclesiastic rout
Leaves but a startled sleeper-out,
Grey heavens, the first bird's drowsy calls,
The falling house that never falls.

God! I will pack, and take a train,
And get me to England once again!
For England's the one land, I know,
Where men with Splendid Hearts may go;
And Cambridgeshire, of all England,
The shire for Men who Understand;
And of THAT district I prefer
The lovely hamlet Grantchester.
For Cambridge people rarely smile,
Being urban, squat, and packed with guile;
And Royston men in the far South
Are black and fierce and strange of mouth;
At Over they fling oaths at one,
And worse than oaths at Trumpington,
And Ditton girls are mean and dirty,
And there's none in Harston under thirty,
And folks in Shelford and those parts
Have twisted lips and twisted hearts,
And Barton men make Cockney rhymes,
And Coton's full of nameless crimes,
And things are done you'd not believe
At Madingley on Christmas Eve.
Strong men have run for miles and miles,
When one from Cherry Hinton smiles;
Strong men have blanched, and shot their wives,
Rather than send them to St. Ives;
Strong men have cried like babes, bydam,
To hear what happened at Babraham.
But Grantchester! ah, Grantchester!
There's peace and holy quiet there,
Great clouds along pacific skies,
And men and women with straight eyes,
Lithe children lovelier than a dream,
A bosky wood, a slumbrous stream,
And little kindly winds that creep
Round twilight corners, half asleep.
In Grantchester their skins are white;
They bathe by day, they bathe by night;
The women there do all they ought;
The men observe the Rules of Thought.
They love the Good; they worship Truth;
They laugh uproariously in youth;
(And when they get to feeling old,
They up and shoot themselves, I'm told)...

Ah God! to see the branches stir
Across the moon at Grantchester!
To smell the thrilling-sweet and rotten
Unforgettable, unforgotten
River-smell, and hear the breeze
Sobbing in the little trees.
Say, do the elm-clumps greatly stand
Still guardians of that holy land?
The chestnuts shade, in reverend dream,
The yet unacademic stream?
Is dawn a secret shy and cold
Anadyomene, silver-gold?
And sunset still a golden sea
From Haslingfield to Madingley?
And after, ere the night is born,
Do hares come out about the corn?
Oh, is the water sweet and cool,
Gentle and brown, above the pool?
And laughs the immortal river still
Under the mill, under the mill?
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain?... oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

Utterly self-indulgent - but that's exactly how homesickness gets me too... Wanting to remember and savour and glorify and wallow in every whiff of home...

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